Heroine…tyrant

You Magazine – Mail on Sunday, 30 March 2003

Monica Porter grew up unaware of her mother’s glamorous past and daring wartime exploits. All she knew was that she wanted to escape her oppressive domestic regime.

Ten years ago my mother and I stood together on a sunny, pine-scented hillside at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, both a little tearful. It was a very special occasion. Nearly a half-century after the end of the Second World War, my mother was at last receiving the recognition she deserved for having risked her life to save five Jewish friends from the Holocaust. The Israeli authorities bestowed on her the title of Righteous Among the Nations, their highest expression of honour, and her name, Vali Racz, was carved on to a marble plaque on the ‘Wall of the Righteous’.

Her story was an extraordinary one – the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters. She had been a glamorous nightclub singer and actress in Budapest during the Forties, when the Nazis invaded. She hid her little group of Jewish fugitives in her own home – the penalty for which was summary execution – and so helped them escape deportation to Auschwitz and almost certain death.

When the secret police raided her villa in the Buda hills, the terrified Jews concealed themselves behind a false wall built into her bedroom wardrobe, and remained undetected. My mother, however, was arrested and interrogated for weeks by the Gestapo. She escaped execution by a hair’s breadth, when an influential friend (working secretly for the Resistance) intervened…

I felt proud of her as we stood there, side by side in the summer heat. She had been brave, selfless, compassionate. A truly remarkable woman. And I got particular satisfaction from the fact that the catalyst which led to her receiving this honour was the book I wrote about her wartime exploits, Deadly Carousel, published two years earlier.

Until then, very few people had known about her rescue mission. Like most genuine heroes, she never talked about what she had done. I once asked her why she had never mentioned her wartime deeds during all my years of growing up. ‘The memories were too painful,’ she explained. ‘I just wanted to forget.’

The large gathering of friends and officials on that hillside clearly had the greatest admiration for my mother, and rightly so. To them she was a shining example of human decency. But there was another side to her which they knew nothing about, a rather less appealing aspect of her character, which I had experienced all too closely during my adolescence and early adulthood. To understand my mother, you had to know that part of the story, too.

My family (my parents, older brother Val and I) fled from Hungary to America in 1956, after the popular Uprising was crushed by Soviet tanks. We settled in New York. I hit my teen years just as the era of unbridled teenage freedom and assertiveness was being ushered in to the strains of the Rolling Stones hit, Satisfaction. But there wasn’t to be much satisfaction for me – my mother made sure of that.

We are all familiar with the classic conflict between mothers and their teenage daughters. It occurs in most families to some degree. But the emotional and psychological tensions between us went beyond that. I often felt like a prisoner in a glass bubble – I could look out at the delights all around me, but not take part in them.

With the new climate of permissiveness in the Sixties, teenagers had been given a license to have endless fun. Their lives seemed to whirl around parties and dances and dates. But my mother didn’t believe in youngsters having as much fun as that. The restrictions she put on my daily life made it necessary for me to do a lot of sneaking around behind her back. For example, whenever I acquired a ‘boyfriend’ of any description, it was always a secret one. And as anyone familiar with the tale of Romeo and Juliet knows, secret boyfriends aren’t very satisfactory and don’t last long.

My mother vehemently disapproved of the prevailing teenage lifestyle and tried to limit my social contact with my peers, so that I would be less ‘infected’ by their sinful and hedonistic ways. Girlfriends of mine who were going out with boys she regarded as little better than common tarts.

There was never any physical abuse, but her volatile temperament made for occasional outbursts verging on the hysterical, which instilled in me a lifelong aversion to tantrums of any kind.

To my friends she was incomprehensively strict, something of an ogre. And amongst her own friends and acquaintances – although many were very fond of her and she could be kind and generous to a fault – no one was in any doubt that she was a tough customer. Her frequent bust-ups with people were evidence of that. The crucial factor about my mother was that she didn’t care whether people approved of her. She had total self-belief and never said or did anything just to please.

During the worst period, when I was aged 14-16, I viewed her as my unyielding prison guard, going far beyond the bounds of a mother who was simply ‘over-protective’. I was once sent a postcard by a girlfriend on holiday. A wholly innocent thing. But my mother intercepted it and never gave it to me. I found it months later, stuck in a drawer. There was no point in my mentioning it to her – she could never conceive of having done anything unreasonable or wrong.

What was she so afraid of? I think it could only have been that I would lose my virginity – the worst imaginable horror, as far as she was concerned. But if my mother had only known, I was in no danger of having sex with anyone at that age. I was less Lolita, more Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.

Like any other kid, I just wanted to be the same as everyone else, to blend in. But that was hard to do from inside my quasi-Victorian bubble in the midst of liberal Sixties America.

It would be natural to assume that my mother was so much stricter than American mothers because she came from a different culture. But this isn’t so. I knew many Hungarian émigré families in the States at that time in which the children were brought up pretty much as all-American kids. Indeed, some émigrés embraced the American lifestyle to such an extent that they almost out-Yanked the Yanks.

No, there were other factors to blame for my mother’s unbending regime. To start with, there were virtually two generations between us instead of one: she was 41 when I was born. Right away that put more distance between our respective world views. And then there was her Catholic upbringing in a small rural community at the hands of a stern headmaster father. Her idea of morality was shaped by this volatile, cane-wielding martinet. (Mine was shaped by episodes of Ozzie and Harriet – a ‘heart-warming family sit-com’ – and Bonanza.) And then, of course, there were the genes: she had unmistakably inherited her father’s authoritarian and domineering nature.

She broke away from the uptight religious strictures successfully enough when she became a sultry musical star in Budapest, making films in which, ironically, she always played the ‘other woman’, dripping in sex appeal. But decades later, as full-time home-maker, she just couldn’t make that further leap into easygoing, wise and lovable Harriet Nelson-type mum. Instead, she retreated back into the worst excesses of her own early influences.

My father Peter, to whom I was much closer, was a more tolerant parent, but his work as a journalist and broadcaster kept him busy and out of the house most of the time, so he had, of necessity, to give over much of the business of child-rearing to his wife. In any case, he was no match for her fiery temperament. None of us were. I think my mother stamped the resistance out of my brother, who was quiet and introspective, at an early age.

I would have loved to be sent away to boarding school, but as an immigrant family we didn’t have that sort of money. I did run away once or twice, but came slinking back very quickly for the same reason: insufficient funds. So instead I would retreat into my room, where I often lay on the bed in a state of helpless misery. I remember once fantasising about my mother meeting with a terrible accident – something of which I later felt heartily ashamed.

It was largely because things didn’t ease up at home as I grew older that I married very young – at 22. It wasn’t the only reason, of course, but marriage did seem a convenient route out of my problems. We were all living in London by then, and my husband, an English lawyer – a responsible sort of chap with good prospects – was a thoroughly acceptable candidate.

A year after my marriage my parents moved abroad, to Germany. My mother would periodically come to stay with us, never seeing herself as a guest, but rather as an active member of the household. She was well-intentioned, but her hands-on ways were not always helpful.

In one incident which still makes me cringe, my fastidious mother poured some disinfectant down the loo which turned the water blue. When my husband arrived home that evening and used the bathroom, the unexpected sight of it gave him a shock and he accused my mother of ‘meddling’. She vowed never to come back. The legendary blue-water episode became symbolic of the precarious triangular relationship between my husband, my mother and me.

I believe a major by-product of my upbringing was that, recalling with horror the stranglehold in which I had been contained, I have brought up my own two sons with an over-abundance of laissez faire. Not necessarily the best method – they are certainly more demanding and mouthy than I ever was – but at least they’ve been enjoying life more than I did all those years ago.

In time my mother and I reached a rapprochement, helped along by the unstinting support she gave me in her role as grandmother. She was no soppy, over-indulgent gran, but she enjoyed this new role late in life, and was happy to look after my two young sons while I had much-needed breaks. She was also most supportive when I was going through my divorce, after 17 years of marriage…

But what really brought us together was the book I wrote about her wartime story, which I only learnt about in my thirties. Delving deep into the past, I unearthed startling truths about her life. I learned that in her youth she had been a vastly different person to the one I knew when I was growing up. Far from being a buttoned-up Victorian, she’d had a wild time of it as a young singer in Budapest in the Thirties. While she had denied me the opportunity to sow my wild oats, she’d sown plenty of her own. Somehow, I was past resenting this. It was just a thrilling discovery. And then there was the heroism, too.

Realising at last what an exceptional mother I had gave me a new respect and admiration for her. The book became a sort of bridge between us. I’d like to say it wiped out forever the more negative memories of my growing up, but it never quite did that.

It did, however, help me to reach a deeper understanding of why she became the sort of parent she was. As I learned, the war had destroyed my mother’s career. Soon afterwards the communists seized control in Hungary, it became a satellite of the Soviet Union, and anyone who had flourished under the previous regime was persona non grata. The fact that she had been anything but a Nazi sympathiser did not help her much. When we emigrated to America, my once-celebrated mother turned into an anonymous housewife. She lost a country and a career. That left her disorientated and with a sense of bitterness.

I firmly believe that had world events – and therefore our lives – turned out differently, had we stayed in a Hungary in which my mother could have continued to be a shining star, she would have been a far more relaxed parent. She could have afforded to be. Besides the security of being on her home turf, she would have been too busy managing her career and her fame to pay such over-zealous attention to my own doings. As it was, deprived of her life’s central focus, she zeroed in on her children, while at the same time reaching back to the only certainties she had left: the severe values of her own upbringing.

She died six years ago, at the age of 85. She had been very ill, and at the end, there was little left of her feistiness. It tore us apart to watch her go. Despite everything, she was deeply loved by her family. That is the prerogative of even an imperfect mother.

We all know that one person can embody highly contradictory traits, such as compassion and cruelty. But when that person is your own mother, it can create an insoluble inner conflict which lasts your whole life long.

When I think of her, which is quite often, it’s with a clash of emotions – a lingering resentment of her ‘mishandling’ of my brother and me, fierce pride in the noble qualities she displayed during the dark war years – as well as in her talent, beauty and achievements – and a certain sadness that we couldn’t have had an easier, less complicated relationship. But for that, perhaps, we would have had to lead easier, less complicated lives. And it was never our fate to do that.

 

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